Bach’s Passion for Lent

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
    and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53:4-6 RSV

Fair copy in Bach’s own hand of the Passion of St Matthew

This last year I suggested that we might accompany our Advent reflections with Handel’s Messiah. In this same vein, I would like to suggest that Bach’s Passion of St Matthew can help us to think more deeply about the the passion of our Lord Jesus.

Alan E. Lewis in his book, Between Cross & Resurrection notes that Christians pass far too quickly from the crucifixion on Friday to the resurrection on Sunday. We do not give Holy Saturday its due. I would say that most Christians today (myself included) do not spend enough time meditating on the end of Christ’s earthly life.

A slow reading of the canonical Gospels will most certainly aid us. In addition to the reading of Scriptures, the contemplation of arte sacro or liturgical music can help us meditate upon the meaning of the events that brought us salvation through the person and work of Christ.

Here is an excerpt from the Passion of St Matthew by Bach:

Der Heiland fällt vor seinem Vater nieder;
Dadurch erhebt er sich und alle
Von unserm Falle
Hinauf zu Gottes Gnade wieder.
Er ist bereit,
Den Kelch, des Todes Bitterkeit
Zu trinken,
In welchen Sünden dieser Welt
Gegossen sind und häßlich stinken,
Weil es dem lieben Gott gefällt.

The Savior falls down before his father;
Thereby he raises me and all people
From our fall
Upward to Godís grace again.
He is ready
The cup of death’s bitterness
To drink,
Wherein the sins of this world
Are poured and stink odiously,
Because it pleases dear God.

For a greater understanding of Lent, I recommend the following books:

Bobby Gross. Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009.

Alan E. Lewis. Between the Cross & Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001. 

Philip H. Pfatteicher. Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 

Fleming Rutledge. The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015. 

One for All

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” – John 11:49-50

There in the meeting of the council a pertinent answer is found to the question, “What are we to do?” Caiaphas, the High Priest, listened for a long time to the excited speeches. Now he rose and said, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” Some of the council might have secretly had the same thought but not dared to express it openly. Caiaphas, however, shies away from nothing. It is all one to him whether they do right or wrong, whether they fulfill the law or bring bloodguilt upon themselves. His decision is certain. Earthly power must be secured even if heaven is lost in the process. If the agitated populace is to be restored to order and the authority of those in power maintained, then Christ has to die. That is the radical expedient. As always in such meetings, strength prevails. Caiaphas’s suggestion forces its way through, and the most terrible crime of the human race, the murder of the Messiah, is decided. 

The whole meaning and purpose of this murderous decision can be summed up in Caiaphas’s remark: one for all. Yet “one for all” rang also in the shining depth of the heart of God. Caiaphas had to prophesy because he was the high priest. Without knowing it or wanting it, he had to disclose God’s eternal counsel of grace. All people have sinned and deserve death, but God will not let himself be robbed of his most beloved creation by Satan’s power and cunning. His heart is filled with pity for the whole race of his lost children. For this reason he prepared the one who is the head of all. He alone is pure and has done nothing to deserve death. Nevertheless he wants to die for all, for he is love. He is able to die without perishing, because he is life. His death is valid for all in the sight of eternal justice, because he is more than all, and because all are one in him. If he dies, all have died in his death; if he lives, all live with him. This is Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Son and the Son of Man. 

One for all – that is now the comfort of all who have faith. What a dark mystery life and death would be without this word! But if the inscription “one for all” is placed over the manger and the cross, how clear everything becomes. 

How could we dare to call ourselves God’s children if Christ were not born for us? How could we believe in the forgiveness of our sins if he had not atoned for us? How could we approach death with tranquil hearts if he had not died for us? Yes, “Christ for us” – “One for all”. That is the great fact of salvation through which the world is saved, our human race is newborn, our life is blessed, and death is overcome. Whoever grasps this One in faith has everything that he needs both here and in eternity, peace on earth and blessedness in heaven. 

– Johann Ernst von Holst

The Crucified is My Love: Morning and Evening Devotions for the Holy Season of Lent